Tuesday, June 19, 2018

BY ROB SMENTEK

In the January 2017 issue, we had the privilege of gleaning knowledge from many operators who had been in business for 25 years or more, but there were so many others that we couldn’t include. So, you asked for it and we delivered with a second part.

Allen Candeub Alan Candeub
President of Park Avenue Limousine in Trevose, Pa.

Founded by Alan Candeub in 1986.

Early hurdles?
Acquiring new accounts and establishing myself as a startup company were my early hurdles. I was also accepting all work and not vetting my clients.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
My only advice is to be prepared, be prepared, and be prepared. It’s not “if” it’s going to happen but “when” it’s going to happen, and you must have a plan in place for when it does. The best thing I’ve found is to minimize exposure in all aspects of my company as much as possible.

How did you balance your work and family life?
I basically had no family life at all while building the company. I was fortunate because I didn’t have any children my first five years in business—but I did have a very understanding wife.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
What I’ve learned is not to be discouraged by external factors because people will try to talk you out of doing something or try to influence you to change your mind. At the core, provide great service, always stick to your values, and work hard.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
I do not have regrets. All the mistakes I’ve made have been great learning lessons, and I’m grateful for them. Take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail or make mistakes: Learn from them.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
I always intended to build a career in transportation. I go into every project with a positive attitude, and the only real goal I ever had for my company was to provide the best service possible. If the important stuff is squared away, the rest usually falls into place.

How have you been influenced by younger employees/managers?
Technology obviously revolutionized every aspect of our industry. My kids influence me all the time when it comes to technology: Millennials are the present and the future—in the workplace AND as consumers of our services. They will take this industry to places that we never dreamed.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
Looking back, I laugh at the tremendous amount of paper that we used to consume for everything: schedules, signs, billing, work orders, and so on. Technology has clearly helped to eliminate all of those reams of paper that we constantly used.

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
Labor in every capacity will always be an issue. It’s probably the one item that technology cannot completely alleviate. If you rely on people for service then hiring, recruiting, and managing will always be challenging with its own set of problems. How we hire has changed, but trying to find those candidates has remained the same.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
I have family members who are interested in continuing the business for generations to come. I feel that my full-time involvement will be probably be another eight to 10 years, at which point I will start to scale back and trust my family with the company. Although, if it were up to my girls, my exit strategy would be a lot different!

Sean Duval Sean Duval
CEO & Chairman of Golden Limousine International in Detroit, Mich.

Founded by Sean Duval in 1992.

Early hurdles?
I was still working my “day job” so it was difficult to work full time and to call back customers after hours. We had to make the decision that this was not a part-time endeavor. Once we did that, we really started to improve our operations, customer service, and bookings.

Our first vehicles had a lot of issues, so we would often spend the entire week fixing them so that they could be used on the weekend. It wasn’t until 1994 that we could afford our first new 120” stretch.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
Good people are hard to find so it pays to take care of your staff. One of the most expensive line items is training and recruitment, and we don’t want to make it even costlier by having frequent turnover. Customers always remember the chauffeur and the reservationist. When they are happy, it is not a big leap to see how well they will treat your customers. Also, make the most of prosperous times in this industry. Putting money away and not getting overextended is the key to longevity. 

How did you balance your work and family life?
When I started, we had three boys under the age of six. We did a lot of phone forwarding and had babies in and out of the office. We slid into the daycare parking lot more than just a few times just after the 6 p.m. cutoff—sometimes in a stretch limousine! A buck a minute per child gets expensive, however, so our entire network of family and friends helped us by being our babysitters, phone answerers, car washers, and sometimes drivers. Their involvement allowed us to take care of business and still get to soccer games, parent-teacher conferences, and school plays. It is still in our family blood, as two of my sons are working in the business.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
Get connected to your industry: First, through your local association, then through the NLA. This industry is amazing in how competing operators are so willing to support each other. Some of the best advice will come from other operators who have been in your shoes.

Relationships matter. Within the industry, with your staff, and with clients, the most important thing you can do to survive bad times is always maintain strong relationships. It will ensure that you have someone to lean on when you are in a tight spot, and vice versa. You never know what relationship will help and where the helping hand may come from.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
Work harder to get a no. When I identified my customers, it was a lot easier to fulfill their needs. Before then, all I did was give out free advice (in the form of quotes), only for a customer to go with a cheaper competitor. We work to find out as much about a customer’s needs and try to establish agreement on a budget so that we don’t waste time quoting price shoppers. We serve customers who are willing to pay a premium, and we do the homework to understand their requirements.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
I was just 24 when I started the business, so I had no idea what I was getting into. It took five years before I could work in the business full time, but once I did, it was all about creating relationships and serving up great customer service. We were extremely busy and really focused on fighting the fires created by doubling sales each year. Our goals were always around sales. Today, we make decisions based more on data and less on gut feeling as we focus on training our team to be even more professional, more invested, and more engaged.

How have you been influenced by younger employees/managers?
Our staff has so many ideas, especially the younger members. On the sales side, our younger sales staff have friends working in businesses that we are trying to get in to. They have those connections. It has been interesting to see that play out with companies we have been trying to partner with at higher entry points, only to see success at administrative levels.

They have also influenced us on policy. We have a more relaxed workplace environment that includes pets, social media/cellphone use, a relaxed dress code, and a toddler or two coloring alongside Mommy. This has helped to ensure people can come to work instead of calling out. We are also extremely flexible with work from home, thanks to technology.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
When I think of our early cellphones, the boomerangs on the back of limos, and the size of our pagers, I can only imagine how silly we looked. The cellphone bag alone was big enough to carry a laptop today, well before phones grew so small that you could slide them into a change purse. Beepers, of course, had a whole language unto themselves.

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
We’ve always struggled to find CDL chauffeurs. With such an important role, we are careful about who we hire, and it is painful when they leave. Also, ICs are still an issue. We are committed to having employees but sometimes the grass does look greener. It is challenging to watch customers use dangerous TNC companies that don’t have the same accountability level that we do.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
With several opportunities to expand our service offerings, it seems like new possibilities pop up each day. It is still fun and interesting and I don’t see that changing. We know that those opportunities might mean that we may not always be in passenger transportation, or transportation at all. Hospitality is a big field, and the service-based economy allows for lots of room for an established, but nimble, business to grow. With two sons working in the business, Golden will likely be passed along to the next generation, whether in today’s iteration, or something altogether different.

Carey Fieldhouse Carey Fieldhouse
President of R & R Limousine in Louisville, Ky.

Founded in the early ’90s; purchased by Carey and Eddie Fieldhouse in 2003.

Early hurdles?
They are too numerous to count—from Kentucky’s medallion system for issuing limousine authority, to resistance from state, local, and airport higher-ups to grant us the authority to operate. The medallion system required that my competitors not dispute my application should I want to purchase another vehicle. All it took was one competitor protesting my anticipated new vehicle purchase and the purchase was disallowed. To expand my fleet, I had to acquire existing limousine companies just to use their authority.

Early on, the state also changed the definition of a limousine to exclude sedans. The reasoning was that the clients would just simply switch to stretches instead of using sedans because the state made the change! I had to enlist the powerful legal departments of our large corporate accounts to get that change reversed. Fortunately, I was successful.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
Be financially nimble and ready for change at all times. Know your numbers! All of them: profitability of vehicles, new initiatives, people, interest expenses, etc. Truly understand your P&L and balance sheet. Have a plan for the best and the worst of circumstances. Never operate without Plan B.

Hire really smart, young people if you’re older than 45—you need the new ideas and the traction that will likely follow as well.

If an idea or policy can’t be described in written form, then it is not clear enough to expect anyone to understand it. Have a formal business continuity plan in place that will protect your assets, your employees, and your family in the event that something unexpected happens to you, either temporarily or permanently. You owe that to everyone who depends on the company.

How did you balance your work and family life?
I bought the company when my youngest of three was just finishing elementary school, so there were definitely challenges with allocating time. Having the full support of my husband and children made all the difference. I was still working until midnight on business plans and answering phones in the middle of the night, but somehow it all got done.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
Go to our industry shows and attend every seminar possible. Talk to the veterans in this industry, and find a mentor if you can. Sample a bit of many different seminars and educational venues—you will learn where you need to spend your time on continuing education.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
I honestly don’t think I would have done anything differently, but maybe have done it all faster. I was slower and more cautious in the beginning. It’s easy to speed up the process when you have the self confidence that comes after seeing something turn out well.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
The company was tiny when I first purchased it. My educational background is in finance and accounting, and I initially saw it as an investment that would produce a reasonable cash flow. I did not know that I would become so passionate about the company and the industry—the growth, and knowing that I had a way to positively impact people’s lives by cultivating a culture of integrity and pride.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
I was in the internet business 25 years ago! It was pretty much in an infancy stage as far as online shopping went. I built an online shopping business before pay-per-click advertising or Google was around. I was working on HTML coding and building metatags. When I was in sales prior to that, I of course carried a beeper and had stacks of quarters for pay phones.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
I’m sure I’ll retire someday, but don’t have any plans for that in the immediate future. When that day comes, I will likely hire a president to take my place.

Diane Forgy Diane Forgy
President of Overland Chauffeured Services in Leawood, Ks.

Founded in 1979 by Herb and Sylvia Kreiger, Diane’s parents.

Early hurdles?
I grew up seeing my parents work extremely hard but never quite get ahead enough to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor. I saw how this business could eat you alive financially, physically, and mentally. I had to figure out how to stop doing everything myself, so I sought outside help; within a couple years, I bought our first phone system, back office software, and hired our first full-time office employee. I had to get the foundation in place to run the business like a true company. It’s what hurts most small businesses: getting and staying bogged down with the day to day and not focusing on the bigger picture.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
Understand your fleet utilization and train your dispatchers to be efficient. When I first took over for my parents, it was an inefficient 10-car company. So I shed fleet and learned to grow revenue heavily before adding more metal. Also, train your agents to actually sell, not just quote and take orders. Never stop building your pipeline of new business and don’t let any account become more than 10 percent of your business. Always plan for a rainy day, but never cut corners that impact the safety of your clients or employees. Don’t argue with a client, it’s never worth it. Remember, you have to earn your clients’ business and trust every day, nothing is guaranteed. Always raise the bar.

How did you balance your work and family life?
I took over when the business was still in the home-based, owner-wears-every-hat stage. I had to learn to train and trust the right people, and to make the revenue as process-driven as possible. And I had to be willing to pay and take great care of my employees to get them to take great care of our clients. I’m never shut off completely from the company, and will probably always be that way, but I have forced myself to take a yearly vacation.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
It’s easy to drive a car and make some money, but you will never do more than buy yourself a job with no benefits and take on a ton of liability if you don’t quickly learn to work smart. Now more than ever, you cannot scale your business without technology’s help. If you don’t know how to hire, manage, and train employees, you are not going to grow. Get some training yourself and read whatever you can get your hands on. You have to be a leader. Your credibility takes time to build; don’t take any shortcuts. You won’t build your business from social media alone, although it is an important component. You need to get out and be the face and voice of your company, both in your local market and in the affiliate world. Develop your verbal and written communications skills if they need work. Truly learn your market.

How have acquisitions and industry consolidation impacted your company?
My parents made an acquisition early on that eventually paid off but at the time almost bankrupted them, so I learned from that experience how not to purchase a company. I believe wholeheartedly that consolidation is a must in most markets.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
Absolutely not. I was college-educated with degrees in business and economics, living the life in Dallas and working for the largest commercial real estate company in Texas. When my father developed lung cancer, I instinctively jumped in to keep the business going so my mother could maintain her living. When my father passed away, I originally thought all I would do is stabilize the company, and either get someone in to help run it or position the business to be sold. My mother did not want to sell and asked me to stay involved. It wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time, but I did it.

How have you been influenced by younger employees/managers?
Very early on after taking over the company, we hired a young, polished part-time chauffeur who was going to college. He blossomed in the role as a chauffeur and also contributed some great ideas. He was the first to tell me to stock bottled water and mints before it was an industry standard. He gave me a ton more insight on training and how to treat employees. He eventually moved on, started more than one company, and became a client. A few years ago, he invited me to a party to celebrate one of his most successful company’s 10-year anniversary.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
How about all of the above and then some? I was answering the phones 24/7, and I would sometimes write the reservation info on my hand or arm if the call was in the middle of the night. We used to handwrite all of our trip tickets and prepare invoices on a typewriter. I bought our first computer with a 20MB hard drive for $4,000 and didn’t touch it for several months because I did not know what to do with it.

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
In short, overthinking almost everything.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
I want to make our business simpler to operate so our employees can do their jobs more easily. I want more of their time spent on professional development, creative thinking, building relationships with our clients, and delivering incredible service. I also want to be the best employer I can be. As far as my exit strategy, I am still figuring that out but the more streamlined our business is and invigorating our workplace is, I can either keep hiring incredible talent to run the day to day and step back gradually or possibly find the right strategic buyer or partner to allow me to retire when the time is right.

Arthur Rento Arthur Rento
CEO of Pontarelli Companies in Chicago, Ill.

Founded by Art Rento Sr. in 1977.

Early hurdles?
In 1977, Chicago issued a limited number of livery plates, and the only way to obtain them was to purchase from an existing licensee holder. We purchased a company that had nine livery plates. At that time, Chicago ordinances mandated that all livery plates must be registered to a vehicle, so we started out with nine vehicles.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
A thorough understanding of what it costs you to provide quality product is a must. It allows you to build a staff and a budget that does not put your company in a weak position. If that foundation is solid, making it through a recession becomes possible and even likely. You have to stay aggressive during an economic recession. You cannot sit back and wait for things to change. You have to be ready to make tough decisions because procrastinating can cost you!

How did you balance your work and family life?
In the beginning, it took an amazing amount of time and energy to get the business going. Early on, there wasn’t very much balance between family life and business life, but things balanced out as the business progressed. Pontarelli is a family business in the truest sense of the word. We have three generations involved with the company and I consider it our greatest strength.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
If you are not in this for the long term, reconsider. And keep in mind that this industry’s future will be driven by technology.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
I made growing the business my number one priority. In retrospect, I should have made more time for family interactions like my kids’ baseball, football, and soccer games.

How have acquisitions and industry consolidation impacted your company?
In the past 40 years, we have made two acquisitions. The first one was a local minibus company with about $1,000,000 in sales; we took over the business and paid the prior owners a 10-percent commission for three years. Our second purchase was a limousine service with around $350,000 strictly in private aviation. We were able to double the limousine services revenue within a few years. In the long term, it is my belief that it is more beneficial to add accounts rather than acquiring companies.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
Yes. After our first few years, we resolved to either grow the business or get out. We worked very hard and had a lot of luck and help along the way.

How have you been influenced by younger employees/managers?
I am constantly influenced by employees, managers, competitors, and customers. You should never stop learning. The Millennial mindset is in full effect at Pontarelli because many of our managers and staff in general are on the younger side. It brings a different energy and enthusiasm to the table that I really enjoy. In this industry you need creativity, intelligence, high energy, and passion to stay on top of your game.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
It was maybe 1981, I went to the AT&T store and bought a brand-new PC. I rushed home, hooked it up, turned it on ... and got a green screen with a flashing cursor. I just sat there not knowing what to do next. About the same time, I installed our first mobile phone in a 20” factory Cadillac limousine, which was great until I received my first phone bill: $2,400!

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
I have always felt that our services needed to be merged with technology. We do a good job with this but I also feel I still struggle with inspiring team members to fully embrace technological changes.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
At the present time, I’m not looking to fully retire because I truly like the business. I am fortunate to have strong team members who make it conceivable for me to work on more of a part-time schedule.

Jim and Tracy Salinger Jim and Tracy Salinger
President and Affiliate/General Manager of Unique Limousine in Harrisburg, Pa.

Founded in 1981 by Jim and Josie Salinger, Tracy’s parents.

Early hurdles?
Jim: In Pennsylvania, we need PUC licensing, and back then, there was one other company (about 35 miles away) that protested us getting our operating authority. Ultimately, in the mid-’90s, we bought them out.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
Tracy: When we were much smaller, Dad would try to cut costs by going out and driving himself. In hindsight, he should’ve hired chauffeurs while he focused on sales. In the 2008 recession, if had it not been for the “Bank of Mom,” the company wouldn’t have made it. We made some tough decisions, including layoffs, and Mom and Dad didn’t take a salary for almost five years. We got leaner and meaner, and it was very uncomfortable for quite a few years, but we celebrated once we got Mom paid back.

Also, don’t be afraid to invest in dirt. Back in the ’80s, my parents bought 15 acres, and when the property was rezoned industrial, its value skyrocketed. Today, there’s three buildings with a little over 107,000 square feet. Our tenants help make the mortgage.

How did you balance your work and family life?
Jim: What family life?

Tracy: Mom was a stay-at-home mom, and she kept us in clean clothes and fed while Dad was out working. He was gone A LOT, and Mom always reinforced that he was out working hard to keep a roof over our heads. Working long hours was and is normal for our family. It wasn’t strange, it was actually pretty standard. We didn’t think about the drain on family, because we were all in it together.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
Jim: Make sure you have solid financial backing before you go after that big account. If you can’t back up your words with money, you’re going to shoot yourself. Pay everyone else first. If there’s something left, then you get paid. If you’re just starting out, make sure you’re properly funded beforehand. Today, you can’t go into business like we did then: We just winged it.

Tracy: Be a realist. Understand that it’s going to take triple the money, the work, and the energy, and you’re going to sacrifice so much to get it off the ground. Then, your passion and dedication need to continue. Is this truly where you need to be? If you’re going to do this, then do it 100 percent. Be the best that you are able to be in your niche, and sell the daylights out of it. Be the expert in what you do.

How have acquisitions and industry consolidation impacted your company?
Jim: We’ve purchased companies for different reasons: Some, because it just made good sense; others, to remove competition from the game. Through acquisitions, we strengthened our market share, our chauffeur base, and have cleaned up the industry in our region. Each time, we’ve said, “This is it, we’re not buying anymore.” And then we laugh.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
Tracy: Dad just wanted “something to do” after he sold off his trucking and towing companies; we wanted a nice leisurely company but there was no career in mind. When I started at age 14, I just wanted to make some money. On my first day, Dad came in to the office, threw a pile of cash on the desk, and said, “Here, count it. Don’t get it wrong.” That’s how I learned how to count money. I went to Dad and told him how much I had. He asked, “Are you sure?” and I was so we put it on the deposit slip and went to the bank. Lesson learned? Make sure you know exactly what you have.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
Tracy: Two of the biggest things we laugh about today are “the book” and directions that Dad would handwrite. The book was thicker than two Bibles. We held onto that system until the early 2000s, and when I took it away, several ladies in the office thought they were going to have heart attacks.

When Dad handwrote directions, it was in the language called “Jim.” It was more hieroglyphics than English. Today, we’ve taught him how to text, because no one else can read his writing. Texting works!

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
Tracy: Work/life balance always has been a huge challenge. The clientele has gotten more demanding, and they have a sense of entitlement that they shouldn’t. Hiring good chauffeurs and staffing will always be a challenge, as we are in an industry of humanity. And getting people to work weekends.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
Tracy: Mom and Dad have talked about retiring someday. So, they go to the tire store and look around for new tires. You know, to re-tire stuff. At a young 75, Dad’s still having fun. I always said I was going to retire at 50, but that’s just five and a half quick years away, and I never counted on loving the people around me the way that I do. But if that crazy person comes in with “that” check ... then we’ll talk. For now, we’ll go look at tires.

Dale Schahzinski
COO of OML Worldwide Transportation in Northbrook, Ill.

Founded in 1956 by Bernadette Eggan; purchased by George Parker in 1986.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
Guiding the company through this most recent recession was a significant challenge. There was the constant temptation (and often client pressure) to cut prices or try to lowball our competition to get whatever business we could. However, we are not a cut-rate service, so I was persistent in trying to stay the course. As a result, when business finally came back, we were NOT in a position of being less profitable.

Client engagement is an underappreciated asset. There is much to learn from the experiences of your clientele (with your service), and tapping in to that info is vital to your future.

Employees are often taken for granted. They are people with hopes, dreams, and needs just like you. A good employee is more than someone who shows up to the office: A good employee means that YOU won’t need to.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
Create a mission statement! Decide who and what you want to be, and work toward it. Operators who struggle with their industry “identity” often struggle as a company. You can’t be a luxury car service one day and be a shuttle bus company the next. This is not to say that you shouldn’t adapt to changes in the marketplace, but stay true to your brand.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
Do NOT build your own software.

How have acquisitions and industry consolidation impacted your company?
We have acquired a few small operations in the past, no real game changers, but remain open minded in pursuit of the right fit.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
I got into this industry during the 1983 recession. It was out of necessity with a young family to feed and a home-improvement business that was going nowhere. I was planning a short stay, but things worked out differently. As I moved from driving full-time to dispatching, I knew I was capable of handling the needs of our clients both in service and operations. This was important as I entered management, because I was able to take what I had learned and use it to develop client-centric policies and protocols for the people working under me. As a chauffeur, my goal was to be the best at what I was doing so I could make a living. Now, I want everyone here to be the best at what they do so we can ALL make a living.

How have you been influenced by younger employees/managers?
Younger employees bring new ideas and fresh perspectives. That’s not to say that I agree with them all, but it is nice to have something to mull over. It’s interesting: I’ve been with OML for (going on) 35 years and the first 20 were fairly repetitive, with very little in the way of change. The past 15 have been as maddening as they have been exciting. From customer expectations to employee engagement, everything seems to be in constant motion. You need to be light on your feet and ready to adapt quickly.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
Map books and pay phones, two things that are now almost completely lost to time, were absolute necessities. I also remember working in a dispatch room with paper tickets stuck in time order to a hand-cranked conveyer-type board, dispatching hundreds of rides a day and constantly on the lookout for tickets that would fall off the board and end up on the floor... under a desk...almost anywhere but where they were supposed to be.

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
Finding chauffeurs or office personnel who are dedicated to our overall mission has been—and continues to be—a challenge. We are lucky to have a great crew now, but it has been a long road that will likely take a turn in the future. It is difficult to stumble on to that “diamond” in a sea of coal, so we’re constantly on the lookout. However, we’ve been extremely fortunate to have found many solid and dedicated people over the years.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
Is dying at your desk considered a strategy?

Tony Settembre Tony Settembre
Owner at Settembre Luxury Limousine in Peekskill, N.Y.

Founded by Tony Settembre in 1988.

Early hurdles?
Capital was one of the biggest ones for sure. I was 24 at the time, and my sister helped me buy my first Town Car. I then sold my personal car to buy my first limousine, a six-passenger from Executive Coach.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
When 9/11 happened, I’d just bought a nice, new black Town Car, with the new body—and I didn’t move that car for almost two months. Hardly anything was going to the airports, and I’d been doing four or five of those a day. Then April came around, and I was getting all these weddings, which helped to pay the bills until, little by little, we started getting the airports back.

How did you balance your work and family life?
My wife’s pretty cool. I have two businesses: a restaurant and transportation. I got married in 1998, and when we met I had two limousines. She never worked with me in this business but she always helped me out. If I was doing a wedding show, she would drive one of the cars there. If I ever needed the help, she was right there.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
You have to be on your game always, number one. In other words, if you’re a gung-ho guy, you have a lot of energy, and you never take no for an answer, you can do well in this business. You also need to have the right tools. Not being professional is just as bad as pulling up with a junker. Be detail-oriented and always be prepared.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
I could answer that in a million different ways but my biggest problems came from hiring people when I was desperate. I’d rather not do the job than put the wrong person in there. I would never do that again. They need to have the right personality and be customer-oriented. Pay a little bit more to have the proper person for the job.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
Yes. My goal was to have an office with a secretary and a beautiful showroom, which I have now. The place sells itself, and that’s what I always wanted. I’m not a part-time limo guy: We do this every day, but the industry has changed. It WAS good; it’s okay now. Lately, I’m getting into bus work. The buses are the future: I’d rather have a 20-passenger party bus than a 20-passenger Escalade. It’s safer to be in a bus and they’re just easier to deal with.

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
The only problems we had then that I’m still facing now is the weather. That’s never changed. You can book four or five jobs on a Friday morning in late November, and it snows. And people get pissed that you can’t pick them up. Just because they’ve cleared the runway doesn’t mean we’ve dealt with the 10 inches of snow that’s an hour outside NYC. We advertise 4WD vehicles but safety is still a concern. Back when I was driving Town Cars, I flipped one on the icy roads and the customer was so angry I couldn’t get them, even though I was calling them while upside down.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
I’m 51 years old and I’m still doing all the things I’ve been doing for years. I’m still hustling. In my mind, I can’t believe it’s been this long and I’m still thinking like I just started. All we have to do is stay above water. I own every car, so there’s no car payments. I’m lucky I’m very handy, I can diagnose the problems and then our guys can fix it. It saves a fortune on repairs. I can’t see me NOT being in this industry.

Steve Spencer
President of London Towncars in New York, N.Y.

Founded by Steve Spencer Sr., father of Steve, and two partners in 1959.

Early hurdles?
From what I recall my father telling me, early hurdles were getting full-time chauffeurs: Many of his early employees were firemen and policemen who worked as part-time chauffeurs. Once during a big fire, all the firemen got called in, so he had to jump into a car to pick up a customer. Also, I believe he had difficulty getting financing, but was able to get loans through his friends. He originally started with three London cabs, hence our name. However, these did not prove to be practical, so he switched to American sedans.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
All business owners have to watch both the bottom and top lines. You don’t need an MBA to know that if you have more money going out than coming in that you have a problem. When business drops, you have to be prepared to reduce your expenses. This means selling your unprofitable vehicles and sometimes letting people go. Getting new business is always challenging. Your best resource is your existing customer base. If you can “wow” them with great service, they will tell their friends and colleagues.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
Nice, clean vehicles are very important. However, it’s your team and their attitude that should set you apart from the competition. Hiring quality chauffeurs who have the right customer service mentality is even more important than the vehicle. The same holds true for your dispatchers and reservations agents.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
A number of years ago we were victims of our own success. We would regularly turn away customers when we were booked. This is basically telling your customers “please call my competition.” I know we lost a lot of business from this practice. Now we use local affiliate partners to assist us when we are busy. The worst thing you can do is not show up; the next worst thing is to say “no.” Customers want to hear “yes, we can” not “sorry, we’re booked.”

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
As this was my father’s company, I wanted to be a part of the family business, and to contribute to its growth and success.

How have you been influenced by younger employees/managers?
My director of operations is 28 years old. I hired him because he “gets it.” He understands how to treat customers by always telling them the truth, and understanding their point of view. On the technology side he consolidated our push to talk, cellphone, GPS, and internet dispatching all in one smart phone. He has also helped reduce costs in several key areas. He has brought in new business as he is a good salesperson as well.

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
The biggest ongoing challenge has been over-regulation. For example, we had a 12-passenger executive van that had to be licensed and inspected by the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, as well as the N.Y. and U.S. DOTs— three different agencies. We sold that van. Currently, there is a proposal by the NYC TLC that 25 percent of all jobs MUST be dispatched to wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Out of approximately 30,000 trips we did last year only six were for this vehicle type. How does this make any sense? Over-regulation hurts companies, which in turn kills jobs. Conversely, the TNCs have been able to circumvent regulation by government agencies.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
My goal is to keep my customers and employees happy.

Diana Wolters Diana Wolters
Owner of Dynasty Limousine Service in Appleton, Wisc.

Founded by John and Diana Wolters in 1992.

Early hurdles?
Financing was the biggest. I could only afford a $7,000 limousine, and I put on paper what I needed each month to take in and pay out. I was very fortunate: I had a banker who told me not to go in too deep and above what I can afford.

What wisdom and experience did you gain to stand the test of time?
It took a lot of hard work and hours to develop my company’s name in the area, and I am still a very hands-on owner. The competition was much greater for me then than it is for me now. We’re still a smaller company, but I believe it is very important to be an owner-operator because I see everything that is happening and my chauffeurs respect that. I also see firsthand that customers leave my car happy and satisfied. We have a lot of regular clientele I still drive for—we all go over and beyond.

How did you balance your work and family life?
I am a firm believer that family is first, although there were times when family things fell through. Those are some regrets I have with running this type of 24/7 service. However, when you are committed to a job, you are there for the client. Sometimes you have to go with the flow. When on vacation, my phone is always with me—I’m able to keep the business running even when I am not there.

What advice would you offer to newer operators?
I’d tell them that it’s a lot of hard work and many hours; I believe it takes up to seven years to develop a solid reputation and loyal clientele. If you’re just getting started, go slow because growing too fast doesn’t work, and definitely concentrate on corporate work. Uber finally just hit our area this summer, so a lot of the nightlife work has unfortunately gone to them—but we concentrate on growing with our current clients. Also, get involved with associations. If it weren’t for the NLA, I wouldn’t have all the affiliate work that I do.

Regrets: What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
Taking an SBA loan was probably one of the worst things that I ever did because when the economy went down, it was a struggle to continue paying it. I did whatever I had to in order to make those payments. It took me a long time to finally start making money.

How have acquisitions and industry consolidation impacted your company?
I don’t have any plans to acquire another company, but if someone came to me and made an offer, I would consider selling mine. It’s not necessarily something I’m planning, but I never say never.

Did you envision building your career in this industry?
I only wanted to do this for five years, but here we are 25 years later. The first five years were tough because I was doing everything myself, the hours were long, and I was still raising my kids, but now I enjoy the flexibility—thank goodness not every day is haywire. We roll with it when it’s busy and take a break when it’s slow. We’re in a conservative area here—it’s not like New York or Chicago—and not every day is super busy like for other larger companies.

What’s something you did 25 years ago that makes you laugh today?
I remember going into the airport with the huge bag phone—so big, bulky, and heavy! I also insisted on wearing a chauffeur hat, which I was constantly chasing.

What issue did you have then that you’re still dealing with now?
Being a smaller company, we really haven’t had too many battles. I have always had the best chauffeurs who are so flexible for those last-minute jobs that seem to be happening more and more lately. Honestly, I can only be grateful.

What are your plans for the future, or your exit strategy?
As of now, I do not have future plans to retire. I can honestly say that it’s been 25 years and I’m still not tired of the business. I want to thank my family, staff, affiliates, and clients for Dynasty’s 25 years: We’ll keep operating as usual to keep our clients and affiliates happy. [CD1017]